Viruses and Disease

Viruses cause a variety of diseases in animals, including humans, ranging from the common cold to potentially fatal illnesses like meningitis (Figure 12.7). These diseases can be treated by antiviral drugs or by vaccines, but some viruses, such as HIV, are capable of avoiding the immune response and mutating so as to become resistant to antiviral drugs.

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Figure 12.7 Viruses are the cause of dozens of ailments in humans, ranging from mild illnesses to serious diseases. (credit: modification of work by Mikael Häggström)

Vaccines for Prevention

While we do have limited numbers of effective antiviral drugs, such as those used to treat HIV and influenza, the primary method of controlling viral disease is by vaccination, which is intended to prevent outbreaks by building immunity to a virus or virus family. A vaccine may be prepared using weakened live viruses, killed viruses, or molecular subunits of the virus. In general, live viruses lead to better immunity, but have the possibility of causing disease at some low frequency. Killed viral vaccine and the subunit viruses are both incapable of causing disease, but in general lead to less effective or long-lasting immunity.

Weakened live viral vaccines are designed in the laboratory to cause few symptoms in recipients while giving them immunity against future infections. Polio was one disease that represented a milestone in the use of vaccines. Mass immunization campaigns in the U.S. in the 1950s (killed vaccine) and 1960s (live vaccine) essentially eradicated the disease, which caused muscle paralysis in children and generated fear in the general population when regional epidemics occurred. The success of the polio vaccine paved the way for the routine dispensation of childhood vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and other diseases.

Live vaccines are usually made by attenuation (weakening) of the “wild-type” (disease-causing) virus by growing it in the laboratory in tissues or at temperatures different from what the virus is accustomed to in the host. For example, the virus may be grown in cells in a test tube, in bird embryos, or in live animals. The adaptation to these new cells or temperature induces mutations in the virus’ genomes, allowing them to grow better in the laboratory while inhibiting their ability to cause disease when reintroduced into the conditions found in the host. These attenuated viruses thus still cause an infection, but they do not grow very well, allowing the immune response to develop in time to prevent major disease. The danger of using live vaccines, which are usually more effective than killed vaccines, is the low but significant risk that these viruses will revert back to their disease-causing form by back mutations. Back mutations occur when the vaccine undergoes mutations in the host such that it readapts to the host and can again cause disease, which can then be spread to other humans in an epidemic. This happened as recently as 2007 in Nigeria where mutations in a polio vaccine led to an epidemic of polio in that country.

Some vaccines are in continuous development because certain viruses, such as influenza and HIV, have a high mutation rate compared to other viruses or host cells. With influenza, mutation in genes for the surface molecules helps the virus evade the protective immunity that may have been obtained in a previous influenza season, making it necessary for individuals to get vaccinated every year. Other viruses, such as those that cause the childhood diseases measles, mumps, and rubella, mutate so little that the same vaccine is used year after year.

Vaccines and Antiviral Drugs for Treatment

In some cases, vaccines can be used to treat an active viral infection. In the case of rabies, a fatal neurological disease transmitted in the saliva of rabies virus-infected animals, the progression of the disease from the time of the animal bite to the time it enters the central nervous system may be two weeks or longer. This is enough time to vaccinate an individual who suspects being bitten by a rabid animal, and the boosted immune response from the vaccination is enough to prevent the virus from entering nervous tissue. Thus, the fatal neurological consequences of the disease are averted and the individual only has to recover from the infected bite. This approach is also being used for the treatment of Ebola, one of the fastest and most deadly viruses affecting humans, though usually infecting limited populations. Ebola is also a leading cause of death in gorillas. Transmitted by bats and great apes, this virus can cause death in 70–90 percent of the infected within two weeks. Using newly developed vaccines that boost the immune response, there is hope that immune systems of affected individuals will be better able to control the virus, potentially reducing mortality rates.

Another way of treating viral infections is the use of antiviral drugs. These drugs often have limited ability to cure viral disease but have been used to control and reduce symptoms for a wide variety of viral diseases. For most viruses, these drugs inhibit the virus by blocking the actions of one or more of its proteins. It is important that the targeted proteins be encoded for by viral genes and that these molecules are not present in a healthy host cell. In this way, viral growth is inhibited without damaging the host. There are large numbers of antiviral drugs available to treat infections, some specific for a particular virus and others that can affect multiple viruses.

Antivirals have been developed to treat genital herpes (herpes simplex II) and influenza. For genital herpes, drugs such as acyclovir can reduce the number and duration of the episodes of active viral disease during which patients develop viral lesions in their skins cells. As the virus remains latent in nervous tissue of the body for life, this drug is not a cure but can make the symptoms of the disease more manageable. For influenza, drugs like Tamiflu can reduce the duration of “flu” symptoms by one or two days, but the drug does not prevent symptoms entirely. Other antiviral drugs, such as Ribavirin, have been used to treat a variety of viral infections.

By far the most successful use of antivirals has been in the treatment of the retrovirus HIV, which causes a disease that, if untreated, is usually fatal within 10–12 years after being infected. Anti-HIV drugs have been able to control viral replication to the point that individuals receiving these drugs survive for a significantly longer time than the untreated.

Anti-HIV drugs inhibit viral replication at many different phases of the HIV replicative cycle. Drugs have been developed that inhibit the fusion of the HIV viral envelope with the plasma membrane of the host cell (fusion inhibitors), the conversion of its RNA genome to double-stranded DNA (reverse transcriptase inhibitors), the integration of the viral DNA into the host genome (integrase inhibitors), and the processing of viral proteins (protease inhibitors).

When any of these drugs are used individually, the virus’ high mutation rate allows the virus to rapidly evolve resistance to the drug. The breakthrough in the treatment of HIV was the development of highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART), which involves a mixture of different drugs, sometimes called a drug “cocktail.” By attacking the virus at different stages of its replication cycle, it is difficult for the virus to develop resistance to multiple drugs at the same time. Still, even with the use of combination HAART therapy, there is concern that, over time, the virus will evolve resistance to this therapy. Thus, new anti-HIV drugs are constantly being developed with the hope of continuing the battle against this highly fatal virus.


Viruses are acellular entities that can usually only be seen with an electron microscope. Their genomes contain either DNA or RNA, and they replicate using the replication proteins of a host cell. Viruses are diverse, infecting archaea, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. Viruses consist of a nucleic-acid core surrounded by a protein capsid with or without an outer lipid envelope.

Viral replication within a living cell always produces changes in the cell, sometimes resulting in cell death and sometimes slowly killing the infected cells. There are six basic stages in the virus replication cycle: attachment, penetration, uncoating, replication, assembly, and release. A viral infection may be productive, resulting in new virions, or nonproductive, meaning the virus remains inside the cell without producing new virions.

Viruses cause a variety of diseases in humans. Many of these diseases can be prevented by the use of viral vaccines, which stimulate protective immunity against the virus without causing major disease. Viral vaccines may also be used in active viral infections, boosting the ability of the immune system to control or destroy the virus. Antiviral drugs that target enzymes and other protein products of viral genes have been developed and used with mixed success. Combinations of anti-HIV drugs have been used to effectively control the virus, extending the lifespan of infected individuals.

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